Susan J Tweit Blog Feed

Fifty-eight Boxes, 3,200 pounds, and 775 miles later...

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After packing, numbering, and inventorying 58 boxes and half-a-dozen un-numbered metal crates, hauling them to the garage, bubble-wrapping and loading 37 pieces of wall-art into Red along with other belongings not suitable for mover-transport, and then driving 775 scenic but very long miles from my Cody house to my Santa Fe condo with the movers several days behind me, I am finally settling in.

(Big thank-yous to my Cody neighbor, Kate, who supervised the loading after I left; to my Salida friend, Denise, for the much-needed massage on the way; and to my Santa Fe neighbor and friend, Liz, who welcomed me with a place to stay before the condo was ready.)

Sierra San Antonio, a volcanic dome marking where the Taos Plateau of northern New Mexico becomes the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. 

The photo at the top of the post is my new living room, and yes, it's missing some furniture, which will arrive in about a week. Still, it's already inviting! The photo below is my Cody garage, all staged for the movers to load up. (That's what 3,200 pounds of my household looks like, if you were wondering.)

When I got to Santa Fe, my kitchen looked like... well, like it was in mid-remodel. The photos below give an idea of the destruction. Believe it or not, what you see there is a big improvement over the 1984-vintage kitchen of before. 

New counters are in, old appliances are out, and the cabinets are stripped and ready for a face-lift. 

New sink too, but not hooked up yet. 

Oh, the difference a week, a lot of scrubbing, a diligent carpenter (thank you, Alan Baca!), and a tidy plumber can make! The kitchen still lacks back-splashes, but the counter guys will return for that. It also lacks a microwave-range hood, which will be installed tomorrow if the weather allows. I've already filled the cabinets and am happily enjoying cooking in the galley-sized space. 

It's been a bit of a challenge figuring out where everything goes, not just in the much-smaller kitchen, but in the whole condo. I downsized from 2,483 square feet on two levels into 848 on one. I still have two bedrooms and two baths, but no garage. (Red is surviving outside--it's not generally as cold in Santa Fe as it gets in Cody!) 

I've hung almost all of the art, set up my desk in the office area of the master bedroom, organized linens and closets and bathrooms, arranged the furniture I have in the living and dining areas, and in the guest bedroom. I also assembled two new bar-stools for the curved breakfast-bar counter between the kitchen and dining area, and assembled the mid-century modern bar cart for the dining area. (Go, Tool Girl!)

The breakfast bar with new barstools and bar cart

Next comes unpacking several dozen boxes of books, but that has to wait until my bookshelves arrive. One set comes tomorrow, along with my dining table, and my bed. (I am sleeping perfectly comfortably on a mattress on the floor, but it will be nice to have an actual bed.) 

The sunny master bedroom with my office in the corner, awaiting bookshelves.

I love every cubic inch of the condo, especially with the warm sun streaming in on these cold and snowy winter days. My absolutely favorite space is the living room (photo at the top of the post), with the patio outside, and the tall cottonwood tree shading it in summer. The light and colors make me smile. Come spring, I'll grow a garden in pots on the patio, adding wildflowers and native plants to provide beauty, and food and shelter for native bees and hummingbirds. 

This small space already feels like a refuge to me, a place I can hide away and write without interruption. I have always been drawn to small spaces, whether the little writing hut in a yard, the tiny houses on wheels, or this cozy condo.

Which I know raises the question of why I bought my gorgeous but terribly run-down mid-Century modern house and yard in Cody. Because the project it was then called to me. Restoration--whether of land or houses--is my passion, and that house definitely deserved to be brought back to life. Now that it's ready for its next 60 years, I look forward to finding someone to love and care for the place.

For the next phase of my life though, I want a nest, and that's what I'm creating here. As the old year ends, I say, "Welcome Home!" to the new one.

My wish for all? May 2019 bring more kindness and compassion to everyone, everywhere, and less turbulence and pain. And may we all be welcomed home, wherever  and whoever we are. 

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Re-Storying A House

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When I first saw my Cody place, the classic mid-Century modern had clearly gone through some hard times. The signs of neglect were obvious and numerous: roof shingles curled and broken, the carport added to the front entry sagging, once magnificent windows filmed with age and dirt, piles of stained mattresses and filthy insulation in the garage, the antique boiler laboring to keep the house warm, the three bathrooms with two working sinks, one working toilet, and one dubious shower between them; the overgrown yard, a tangle of dead shrubs and dirt and trees growing too close together. 

The living room when I first saw it, and that was on a good day... 

It was a daunting project, no doubt about that. But I could see the promise in the place. What gave me pause--and also tugged at my heart--was what I can only describe as a sense of despair, as if the house and yard had given up. 

So of course I had to buy it. I believe in healing and restoration--of houses, land, people. I could see that the place had a lot more years ahead if someone would only take a chance on bringing it back to life. 

Which I've spent the last two years doing, with the help of some talented trades-folk, most especially my contractor, Jeff Durham. The house and yard are renewed from roof to basement, and from front to back and side to side. The place shines and sparkles and sings again.

The backyard before

The backyard now, after tree-trimming and removal, meadow-seeding, and many sweaty hours hauling gravel and rock... 

Now that it's finished, I wanted to know if the place needed anything else from me before I head south. So I asked a new friend, an energy worker and healer in various modalities, to "read" my house. What Kim learned motivated me to do something I've intended to do all along, but haven't found the time for until now: research the house's story, at least as far as learning who owned it over the years. All I knew was that the house was built in 1956, and that there had been only two long-term owners. 

What I discovered from the county records, the history archives at the library, and from friends and neighbors was fascinating. I am only the seventh owner of this house and, oddly, the third widow. 

For most of the sixty-two years since the house was built, it was occupied by just two sets of owners: first, and longest, Inez and George King, who bought the house in 1969, and lived here until 2003 (George died in 1981, but Inez seems to have happily stayed on for another 22 years until her death in 2003). That year, Patricia Baumhover and Howard Madaus bought the house from the King's children; they, or at least she, lived here until 2015. (Howard, a military historian and former curator of the Cody Arms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody's big museum complex, died in 2007. Patricia, a librarian at the Park County Library, lived here alone--but for her cats, according to the neighbors--for another eight years.)

The house might well be called the King House though, since the Kings were in residence for 33 years, just over half the lifespan of the house today. I searched the archives for a photo of Inez, and couldn't find one. (History tends to erase women unless they are famous.)

I did learn a good bit about the King family, who moved to Cody in 1946 and developed Wapiti Lodge, one of the older lodges on the North Fork Highway, the road to the East Entrance of Yellowstone. After George and Inez sold the lodge and retired in 1970, they moved to town, presumably to be closer to their kids and grandkids. (Their descendants still live in the area.)

Wapiti Lodge in 1948, in the early years when the Kings were developing the complex. 

When I read Inez's obituary, I was delighted to discover that she was a gardener who enjoyed "working in her yard [and] tending to her flowers." In renovating the house and yard, I did my best to preserve the heritage perennials I uncovered, including the huge patch of fragrant lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) in the back yard just outside the living room windows. I was careful to site the deck far enough away from the house that the patch wouldn't be disturbed. (My mom loved lily of the valley too.)

Lily of the valley from that big patch in the backyard

I also divided and spread the English iris (Iris latifolia cultivars) that I suspect Inez planted so they now bloom throughout the front yard, and did the same with the daylilies I found languishing in the shade along the east side of the house. And I planted peonies (Paeonia spp), another favorite garden flower of Inez's era, along with tall Asiatic lilies (Lilium hybrids). 

One of the patches of English iris I suspect Inez planted, blooming this spring after I dug up and divided the tubers to give them more space to flourish.

As I pack up to move south, I think about Inez and Patricia and the other women who have loved this house and yard, and hope they approve of all I've given this special place. And that the new owners--whoever they will be--will continue to fill this place with love and laughter and joy. 

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Navigating in the Fog

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Sometimes life is like the drive I took recently on my way home from Santa Fe to Cody. It's 775 miles from place to place, and no, I don't make the whole drive in one day. I left Santa Fe on one of those glorious late fall days in the high desert of northern New Mexico, with warm sun melting the night's frost off the silvered leaves of the rabbitbrush and big sagebrush, and the piñon pine and juniper needles crisp against blue sky. 

Dawn warms up the arroyo I often walk near where I stay in Santa Fe. 

The weather gods were kind as Red carried me north through northern New Mexico, up the wide expanse of the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado (Colorado's wildest and most magical desert region, and one I wrote a book about with photographer Glenn Oakley), and then on north up the Arkansas River Valley where Richard and I lived for so long.

Even 11,000+ foot high Fremont Pass wasn't bad, considering the time of year. (Okay, it was snowing, but the pavement was partly clear.) From there on, we had smooth sailing until Rawlins, Wyoming, where the wind began to howl from the west in great walloping gusts.

Still, the roads were clear, so I got cocky, thinking I'd get all the way home without hitting really bad conditions. Red and I tacked sideways to the wind across the Great Divide Basin, where the Continental Divide splits in two, following the ridges that surround this in-draining bowl of salt-crusted desert. If the gusts were a mite strong, I thought nothing of it, even when we turned west directly into those galloping waves of air.

The sun was shining, I told myself, and the roads were clear. And we were four hours from home. What could go wrong?

When Red and I dropped over Beaver Rim into the Wind River Basin, the wind quit just as abruptly as if switched up. The air was still as glass. As we headed downhill into Riverton, the temperature dropped too, from the low 40s into the teens. Hoarfrost coated every surface, sparkling in the sunshine.

I'd like to say I had the first uh-oh thought then, but I didn't. I was tired and eager to make it home before dark, so I kept Red going, her tires humming as the miles sped past. I didn't read the weather-signs until we crossed the frozen, snow-covered expanse of Boysen Reservoir, about two and a half hours from home. I looked north toward the low ridge of the Owl Creek Mountains and the v-shaped gap of the Wind River Canyon, where we were headed. 

Boysen Reservoir

A gray layer of cloud hung along the lower edge of the Owl Creeks, muffling the canyon itself. Uh oh. 

Red and I turned north at Shoshoni, and soon drove under that cloud. Within a few minutes, the sun's warmth vanished, ice crystals formed on Red's antenna, and even with the heater blasting, cold seeped into the cab. 

High desert landscape with hoarfrost on snow

A few miles later, the cloud--which I now realized was ice fog--closed in around us and visibility dropped to half a mile (the photo at the top of the post), and then only a few car lengths. (I quit shooting photos then.)

I slowed Red and crept on, hoping no one came up suddenly behind us, or wandered into our lane from the other direction. Ten slow and icy but mercifully accident-free miles later, the fog began to lift, and we approached the winding canyon. 

The winding canyon lies ahead, but at least I can see...

The black ice lessened, and I began to think things might improve. Through two dark and icicle-hung tunnels carved in the ancient rock at the core of the range, Red and I emerged. And voilá!

 

I could see blue sky ahead. Around the next bend, the fog and ice cleared away entirely. 

By the time Red and I wound our way out of the canyon and crossed the Bighorn River, the sun had warmed the truck cab and we were whizzing along again. 

Exiting the canyon, the snow and ice behind us... 

From there on in, it really was smooth sailing, and I pulled Red into the driveway just as dusk deepened to darkness, having avoided hitting several hundred mule deer and a larger number of pronghorn on the last segment of the drive. 

My life right now feels very much like I'm still creeping along in that ice fog, hoping it lifts soon and I will see sun and blue sky ahead. (And be able to see the road I'm on!) The fog is partly the events in our country (although the mid-term elections brought a glimmer of smoother sailing ahead) and around the world, where climate change is now enough of an in-your-face catastrophe for humans and other species alike that perhaps we'll take it seriously. 

The fog is also personal. Back in late summer when I finally finished the house and put it on the market, I got cocky and felt like the road ahead was clear: the house would sell quickly, I would pack up and hit the road in my tiny, energy-efficient motorhome, and winter in a warmer climate. Then Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, and my path turned to helping care for him, sorting out his legal and financial affairs, and serving as his personal representative to implement his will after he died.

My time at The Mesa Refuge earlier this month came as a real blessing. Those days with no charge but to write reminded me that no matter what is swirling around me, I have things to say that need to be said now. (Special thanks to my Mesa suite-mate, Syrian-American writer and human rights lawyer Alia Malek, for her thoughts and questions clarifying my thoughts.)

And now, here I am back in Cody and in the fog again. It snowed today. My house hasn't sold, and I am still working on implementing Dad's will. I am also writing. 

I think I can see a blue cast to my personal ice fog, as if it will clear. Or at least lift a bit. What is clear is that I am moving south to Santa Fe in a few weeks to get out of Wyoming's winter before it impacts my health again. I'll return this glorious sagebrush country come spring, and in the meantime, I hope someone buys this beautiful house. It's ready for someone new to love it, and I'm ready to let it go.

And I by then I will have a new book well under way, one about plants and gardens and climate change. So each day I write my way onward into the fog, in the faith that I am going where I need to go, clear roads or not. 

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Weathering Change and Grief

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Outside, California Quail call from the garden in plaintive voices, "Chi-CA-go! Chi-CA-go!" Mounds of Mexican bush sage bloom with stalks of plush purple velvet flowers, along with starry yellow bush sunflower, and scarlet pineapple sage. It's late afternoon and the tide is going out; I can smell the briny musk of the estuary below the bluff in the back yard of The Mesa Refuge, near Point Reyes Station on California's foggy north coast. 

I'm here thanks to the Alice Dorrance Spiritual Writing Fellowship and the generosity of those who support The Mesa Refuge, particularly its founder, Peter Barnes. The house I share with two other writers, Syrian journalist and CUNY professor Alia Malek, and writer and divinity school professor Fred Bahnson, is open and airy, with large windows and high ceilings, a tribute to its beginnings as a painter's studio.

Perched on a bluff that traces the path of one of North America's great fault systems, The San Andres, where one plate of Earth's crust slips slowly past the other, Mesa is literally on an edge. That continuing creep of two segments of Earth's shell creates stress and pressure, and the occasional herky-jerky displacement of earthquakes, appropriate for a place that nurtures writing that is figuratively on the edge as well, writing with the aim of changing the world. 

The gathering room at Mesa, lit by the gorgeous golden light of a coastal afternoon. 

I am here on an edge in my own life, a time of changes both positive and not-so, a time when I am called to look both back at the recent past and forward to a future that despite all, I sense great promise. This month marks seven years since Richard Cabe, the love of my life and my husband for the greater part of three decades, left this existence, killed by the same kind of brain cancer that recently took the life of Senator John McCain. 

Nearly a month ago, on October 7th, my father died, after he turned 90 years old in July, and then being diagnosed just a few weeks later with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma (cancer of the lymph cells). Dad was looking forward to voting this November, taking part in what he hoped would be a wave of civil, fair-minded politics that would turn the country to a more positive direction. May his hopes be borne out!

His death leaves my brother and I the elders in our small family. We aim to model the kind of love and generosity that Dad and Mom showed us, along with their abiding curiosity about the natural world and deep commitment to using their skills and resources for the greater good of all. Eldering is a big responsibility, but it's a joy as well, because we get to watch our kids and their kids grow and find their own ways to give back to the world. (And we get to nudge and help as we can.)

Dad (far right), and my brother, Bill Tweit, with Bill's middle daughter, Sienna Bryant and her family, hubby Matt (far left), and their kids, Fiona and Porter

At the same time that I feel optimistic about the generations to come and their dedication to making a positive difference in the battered world we are leaving them, I also feel a deep grief for the planet I love, as climate change destabilizes not just our weather systems, but the myriad of interconnections between species large and small--from bacteria to blue whales--that maintain the health of whole watersheds, continents, air masses, and the oceans. I am working on a book about restoring nature at home to help us unlock our paralysis about climate change and take seemingly small actions that can stem that tide, and also restore beauty and health to our own lives. 

Even as that work gives me hope, I find myself grieving in a selfish way, because I am weathering these changes--personal and political and planetary--on my own, without Richard, the partner who challenged and inspired and nurtured me. Whose company helped me be a better and stronger and wiser version of myself. At this time of year, I feel the loss of his steady love and companionship most acutely. I have built a happy and fulfilling life on my own, and I have no desire to change my femme solo status, except for this stubborn and illogical wish that Richard were still here, with me. 

So up and down I go, bobbing on the stream of changes that are the only constant in this existence, the journey we call life. Weathering those changes is part of being human, of being alive.

I believe we can turn in a more positive direction. As a sign of that faith, here I am, writing with determination and hope. Writing the change I want to see.

Dilla, a Oaxacan dream armadillo, keeps me company and brings a smile as I write.

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Letting Dad Go

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I'm back from spending two weeks at my brother and sister-in-law's house in western Washington, helping care for my dad, Bob Tweit, as he journeyed from being present and with us, to still and silent, doing the work of leaving this world. Tending to a dying loved one is a huge gift in the intimacy it inspires, the love that flows in the work of hands and heart--the changing of diapers, cleaning up pee and poop, the feeding and administering medications.

It's a time out of time, when day and night blur into a continuous stream of small and large blessings and crises, and the essential primacy of tending to physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The hours may go slow as a toddler's first steps, or fast as a racing heart, but they are all dominated by the central task: keeping a person traveling between this life and the next comfortable, as pain-free as possible, and safe. 

I left Washington on Friday morning in cold rain, and drove the 1,100 miles home through snow and rain and fog and more snow, arriving here late Saturday afternoon--exhausted, and wondering how long Dad would hang on. 

Not long, it turned out. He died quite peacefully the next day, yesterday, in the early evening, with my sister-in-law, Lucy, my eldest niece, Heather, and my youngest niece, Alice, by his side. He's gone. 

I feel grateful for this end-time with Dad. The first week I was there, when Lucy and my brother, Bill, were away in Germany visiting my middle niece, Sienna, and her family, Alice helped me care for him part of the time, and then when she had to go back to school, I had Dad on my own. I got him to tell me stories of his childhood and his college years, to remember birding trips with Mom to far-flung continents, to talk about his best bird sightings.

His absolute favorite, he said, was a harpy eagle in Venezuala that was soaring only about 20 feet overhead, so close that he couldn't find it in his binoculars because the bird was too big for the field of view! (Harpy eagles' wingspans can stretch more than seven feet, a foot-and-a-half wider than I am tall, making them the largest hawks in the world.)

That was so Dad... 

Part of the extended Tweit clan out birding in earlier years (left to right, Molly Cabe, Richard Cabe, Bill Tweit, Joan Tweit, and Bob Tweit, our dad.) An affinity for birds runs in Tweit blood, unless you're me and you prefer plants...

Here is an excerpt from the remembrance I wrote using some of my favorite of the stories he told, to give you a sense of the man and the father:

Robert C. Tweit was born on July 26th, 1928, to Olav Mikal Tweit and Christine Faquharson Tweit in Orange, NJ, and grew up in nearby Mountain Lakes in the house his dad built. He ran track and cross-country in high school, and excelled in running uphill. “Everyone else slowed down on the hills,” he would say, laughing, “it was the only time I could get ahead.” He went to MIT for his undergraduate degree in Chemistry, and said that he benefited from having classmates who had returned from WWII and were going to college on the GI Bill, because they were more mature and focused on their education. 

After graduating from MIT in 1950, Bob bought a 1937 Ford sedan and hit the road for Berkeley, California, to attend University of California - Berkeley. Along the way, he visited national parks including Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone. It was Bob’s first taste of the West, and the experience left him with a lifelong love of travel, and also curiosity about the natural world. 

During Bob’s first year at Berkeley, he met a smart and lively, blue-eyed undergrad named Joan Cannon at the First Congregational Church. Less than two years later, on June 28, 1952, they were married in the same church. A year later, in June of 1953, the two picked up Bob’s last paycheck and set out a month-long tour of the West (in a newer Ford sedan) before Bob was due to start work as a research chemist at Searle Labs in Skokie, Illinois. On their way between Rocky Mountain National Park and points east, they picked up mail in Denver, and found Bob’s draft notice calling him up for service at the tail end of the Korean War. 

So instead of Illinois, Bob and Joan went first to New Jersey, and then Havre d’Grace, Maryland, where they lived for his time in the US Army Chemical Corps. Their first child, Bill, was born there in 1954. The next year, Bob was discharged, and the young family moved to Illinois, where Bob finally began work running a laboratory at Searle, and their daughter Susan was born. 

Bob spent the next 23 years at Searle developing drugs and other useful compounds, and enjoying the lab work, the research, his colleagues, and the stimulation of attending professional meetings. He was also active in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and with the First Congregational Church of Wilmette. During that time, his father helped Bob design and build the first of two camper vans modeled on VW campers. Those vans allowed Bob and the family to explore the Midwest on weekends, and the rest of the country on longer vacations. He and Joan took their kids rock-hounding, wildflower-hunting, birdwatching, hiking, camping, and backpacking from Maine to California, and Florida to British Columbia. Bob’s nature-study interest eventually focused on birds, from seeing new species, to banding them to study bird populations. 

Bob retired from Searle in 1978 with over 100 patents in his name. With the kids grown, he and Joan began another career as volunteers doing interpretive work at National Parks and National Forests throughout the West. They traversed the region from Alaska to Zion National Park in Utah. After they settled in Tucson, they volunteered at Saguaro National Monument and Tucson Audubon Society, leading bird trips and interpretive programs. ...

He and Joan traveled widely beyond North America, going on birding trips and nature-study tours to South America (from Venezuela to Patagonia) and Central America, including Costa Rica and Honduras, the latter with Bill, his wife Lucy Winter, and their youngest, Alice. They drove the Baja Highway, cruised the Volga River in Russia and the Rhine and Rhone in Europe, visited Bob’s cousins in Norway, and explored Scotland and England. They also took two extended trips to Australia, and spent time in New Zealand. 

After 23 years in Tucson, Bob and Joan moved to Denver to be nearer to Susan and her husband, Richard Cabe. They were active volunteers there with the Highlands Garden Village garden group, and enjoyed hikes and excursions in the Front Range. After Joan’s death in 2011, Bob moved to Lacey, Washington, and lived at Panorama, a retirement village, where he was near Bill and Lucy and their family. He took great joy in being the family “patriarch” and in spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Bill and Lucy took Bob with them on several trips, including to Arizona for spring training (and birding), and to Wyoming to see Susan’s house-restoration-project in progress (and go birding).

It's hard to find words for how I feel after letting Dad go: a mix of deeply sad, proud of who he was and how our family pulled together to give him as good a death as possible, relieved that he didn't linger any longer, grateful to Bill and Lucy and my nieces, and to hospice for the help; and exhausted to the bone.

What I can find words for is my determination to carry on what Dad and Mom taught me: To cherish, study, and advocate for the community of species that makes this planet home. To leave my bit of Earth in better shape than I found it. And to live with love, always. 

Last Wednesday night, as I was tucking the covers around Dad after giving him his dinner-time medications, I said, "Love you, Dad." He responded without opening his eyes, "Love you all." By then he was preparing to leave this world: he hadn't eaten in three days, and hadn't drunk any liquids for 48 hours. And still he spoke of his love for our family: Love you all

Thank you for being gracious to the end, Dad. We were fortunate to have you in our lives, and you will live on in our hearts. Always. Love you. 

Dad, smiling without opening his eyes upon my brother's return from Germany, just over a week before Dad died. 

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Waiting: The Practice of Patience

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Patience has never been my virtue. I may spend a long time mulling over a life-decision, researching my options, looking for possibilities I might have missed. But once I decide, I am ready for the results NOW. Or better yet, yesterday. When things don't happen on the schedule I prefer, I fret (inwardly at least), pace about, and do whatever I can to move the process along. 

Oh, I can be patient about some things: writing, renovating a house, digging invasive weeds, shaping a garden... Creative stuff, in other words. 

For example, I spent almost 20 years restoring the block of degraded creek that bounded one edge of Terraphilia, our rescued industrial property in Salida, Colorado, and never got frustrated with the very slow process. You can't rush ecological restoration--it happens on nature's timetable, not ours--especially when you are doing most of the work yourself in your spare time, and with no recompense other than the satisfaction of healing one small part of this amazing planet.

I also spent the better part of seven years writing and rewriting the memoir I call Bless the Birds, even starting over from the very beginning to get it just right. 

I thought I was being patient with restoring this gorgeous mid-Century Modern house and yard too. After all, it's taken a year and nine months to go from grimy and neglected dump to photo-worthy and ready for another 60 years. Only my contractor reminded me that others spread a project like this over decades. Oh. "What if I don't live that long?" I countered. "I want to enjoy it now!" 

He looked at me with--dare I say it?--patience, and waited until I heard the irony in my own words. Okay, maybe I wasn't being as patient as I thought. 

My back deck on a sunny September morning

Apparently I need more practice in patience, and that's what life is giving me right now. 

I am (still) waiting for a publisher to pick up Bless the Birds.

I am waiting for a buyer to snap up my wonderful house and yard. 

I am waiting to hear that my friends who are in the way of Hurricane Florence came through okay, waiting for news on Dad's condition, waiting for a check to arrive for a freelance article I wrote, waiting for paperwork for some of Dad's financials, and waiting to hear if a local shoe store can order a pair of boots I need. 

Have patience! I tell myself. And sometimes I listen...

Now Mom, who has been dead for more than seven years, is reminding me of the importance of practicing patience, albeit in her own unique way. I have been having dreams of the you-can't-get-there-from-here sort, where what you need to accomplish is impossible and you wake frustrated and sometimes exhausted from the trying. 

In my dreams, I am charged with shepherding a group of elders including Mom and Dad onto a small passenger ferry that will carry them across a body of water. Only I can't keep the group together to board the boat: they wander in different directions or go off on their own. Even Mom and Dad, who always held hands, don't stick together. It's like herding cats; I wake tense and discouraged.  

And then, about a week before Dad ended up in the hospital were he was eventually diagnosed with terminal lymphoma, I woke from a very different dream: just Mom and me in a hazy dreamscape of puffy clouds, like a Renaissance fresco. Mom is seated (only there is no chair), looking off into the distance and tapping her feet impatiently. She holds out her hand as if to grasp another's hand, turns to me, and says, "He was always slow." I know immediately who "he" is. I start to reply, but she returns to staring into the distance. 

A moment later, she turns to me again, blue eyes snapping, and says, "Tell him to hurry up. I can't wait much longer."

I look off in the direction of her gaze and there is Dad, working his way towards us with slow and wobbling steps, tapping with his blind-guy cane. He turns his head toward us and says, "Where is she? I can't find her." 

"She's right here next to me, Dad." 

He clearly can't see Mom, so I walk over and lead him to her. He reaches out his hand, fumbling for hers, and misses it, so I guide his hand to hers. 

The moment their hands touch, they are gone. Just like that. 

I woke from that dream with a great sense of relief. I'm not the shepherd after all. Mom, it seems, is waiting for Dad. She'll guide him on this transition. 

Mom, waiting for Dad to finish framing the photo, on their honeymoon at Mt Lassen National Park in June, 1952.

Okay, I thought, Mom's telling me to be patient. (There's an irony in that, since she is clearly tired of waiting for Dad to join her wherever spirits go after they leave these bodies. But she's waited eight years--she's entitled to some impatience.) She's reminding me that I don't have to try so hard to make things work; I can trust that all will be well.

I'm working on that. 

I'm also working on being patient with myself. Because I've realized that losing Dad brings up the grief of those other two losses, Mom and Richard, both gone in the same year.

Weathering grief takes time, just as love takes time--and patience. 

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More Practice in Endings and Beginnings

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As those who have read this blog for a while know, 2011 was an intense year for me of learning about how to love someone and also let them go with as much care and grace as possible. I managed my mother's hospice care through her death in February of that year, and then, with the help of our daughter Molly, tended my husband Richard through his death in November.

Folks who work or volunteer in hospice care often say something like: "It's a privilege to be with you and your family in this journey." It's true: accompanying and/or shepherding someone through the end of their life is a privilege. It's a time of grace, when Life is often stripped down to what we value most, which is usually not things or power or status. 

As our physical abilities drop away, we have the opportunity to leave behind the emotional and intellectual baggage we may have carried. Our egos get checked at the door, as it were. We may find it easier to express love, we may speak of our core values and our understanding of what mattered most in our lives. We may simply be with an ease and comfort we struggled to find in our complicated, hurried lives. 

Of course, dying isn't all sweetness and light, trumpets and puffy clouds. As with the other major passage at the beginning of life, there is pain, sleeplessness, and no small amount of indignity and even fear. (For caregivers too.) Losing control is often one of our greatest fears--having to be dressed and undressed and fed, not to mention having the people we love (or relative strangers) change our diapers and wipe our butts. 

Yet that's a normal part of the arc of our existence. It's both how we come into this life, and most usually, how we go out. 

Now that ending part is coming up for my dad, Bob Tweit, who just turned 90 last month.

(The photo at the top of the post is a sweet one of Dad with my mom, in 2008, the year he turned 80 and mom was 77, when my brother Bill, my sister-in-law Lucy, and my youngest niece, Alice took the folks to Norway to visit our family there. My cousin Halvard Tveit told me in an email today that Mom initially said she was too tired to go on the midnight boat trip around the harbor in Trondheim, until she learned there was a possibility of seeing sea eagles. Then she decided to go, but she watched for sea eagles from a supine position with her head in Dad's lap!)

Dad on another of the adventures we planned to celebrate his 80th birthday, a trip to a wilderness yurt in the mountains on edging North Park, Colorado, near Rocky Mountain National Park. Dad and Mom hiked the whole three miles in to the yurt, and thoroughly enjoyed the days we spent there. That's Dad on the left, and my brother, Bill, on the right, relaxing on the deck of the yurt.

A week ago, Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system. It's a kind of cancer that is highly curable with high doses of chemo if you are young and healthy. Dad is neither--as his oncologist said, the chemo would kill him, after making him so sick he would wish he was dead--and the type of lymphoma he has is particularly aggressive.

The cancer was discovered when a lump appeared on the back of his neck while he was in the hospital. Ten days after that lump was biopsied, it has spread so much it's almost encircling the back of Dad's neck. His prognosis: two weeks to two months. 

When I called Dad after he learned the grim news, I said I was sorry, and he responded in his age-slowed voice, "Everyone dies sometime." True words. But we're not all particularly thoughtful or gracious about letting go of life. 

Dad's out of the hospital and in hospice care at the convalescent center at his retirement village. He's too weak to go back to his apartment in Assisted Living, so Lucy and Bill have decided to move him home to their house for the remainder of his time. I think they are saints!

My job is to consult from a distance, make sure all of his financial and legal affairs are in order, and arrange for his end-of-life wishes. Which will have me scrambling around quite a bit for the next couple of weeks. I'll have a hand in his care for ten days in late September, when I will go to Olympia to stay at Bill and Lucy's and tend Dad (and the household dogs and cats) while Lucy and Bill go to Germany to visit my middle niece, Sienna, and her family, a break that Lucy and Bill will really need by then, I suspect. 

I am reminded (again) of how grateful I am to have a family that pulls together in times of crisis, and also enjoys hanging out together when it's not a crisis. We love each other, and we do our best to live that way. 

A family expedition to the Beartooth Plateau last summer: Alice Tweit (holding Pepper, the Italian Grayhound), Lucy Winter (holding Sarge, also an IG), Bill Tweit, and Dad. 

I am also reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson's words about capital'L' Life: 

Our lives are an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. That there is no end in nature but every end is a beginning. 

Dad's headed for that combined ending and beginning. Mom's spirit is waiting for him, I suspect, and probably getting impatient. For all I know, Richard's spirit is on the lookout for Dad too. 

For the rest of the Tweit clan, our job is to help Dad through this journey on to whatever's next with as much patience, care, and love as we can muster. It's his last trip with us... 

___

On an entirely different note, the for-sale sign is up at my house. If you want to take a virtual tour, check out the photos on Zillow. The place is looking pretty darned wonderful, I think. And if you know someone who would love to buy a beautifully renovated mid-Century Modern house in northwest Wyoming, please share! 

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A Personal Response to Global Climate Change

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In late July, I set out for western Washington to celebrate Dad's 90th birthday with my family. It was a gorgeous day when Red and I pulled out of Cody: sunny, blue skies, and the temperature in the mid-seventies, unusually cool. As we headed north and west across Montana, the temperature soared into the high 90s, and forest-fire smoke hazed the views.

At eight-thirty that night when we stopped in Missoula, the temperature was 94 degrees F. The full moon rose in an eerie sky tinged orange by smoke. As I stretched out atop my sleeping bag in Red's topper, I checked the temperature for Olympia, our destination: the next day's high was forecast as 96 degrees, unusually hot. 

I thought about global climate change as I drifted toward sleep, and made a resolution to make changes in my daily life to contribute less CO2 and other greenhouse gases to our planet's atmosphere. No matter that our leaders seem determined to fiddle while the world burns, I want to take what responsibility I can for providing a positive example. I'm going to be the change I'd like to see... 

Starting with my travels. I love hitting the road in Red and wandering the West. I watch the landscapes as I go, thinking about geology and botany and the myriad interconnections that animate this planet. "Windshield time" is creative time for me. 

By sleeping in Red's topper instead of staying in motels as I go, I save money and also energy (no A/C, no washing of bedding and towels each day, less water heated and treated, and so on). But Red burns gasoline and I use the interstate highway system, with its high speed limits (and drivers who routinely drive much faster than the limit). So I resolved to slow down. 

Gas mileage and speed are inversely linked above your vehicle's optimum speed, usually between 55 and 60 miles per hour. The faster you drive above that optimum, the more your gas mileage decreases.

For example, if your vehicle gets 33 miles per gallon at 55 mph, by the time you go 80, your mileage drops to around 20 mpg (here's a graph illustrating the relationship), making it 28 percent less efficient, with a corresponding increase of CO2 to the atmosphere. Run your vehicle's air conditioner, and the mileage drops even more steeply. 

The next day, all the way across the rest of Montana, Idaho's Panhandle, and the hazy heat of eastern Washington, I drove five miles under the posted speed limit. I still got to Olympia in time for dinner--delicious fresh Chinook salmon my brother had caught. And I filled Red's gas tank less often. 

The time with Dad and my family was sweet. We celebrated his birthday with another great dinner and a delicious cake, plus a family gathering to hear my sister-in-law, Lucy, play cello with the Olympia Symphony at their annual outdoor concert on the state capitol grounds.

Duane Roland, my eldest niece's husband, in the front with Heather, middle left looking down, and their two younger boys, Liam (looking at his dad) and Colin (head hidden), between them. Dad (with the sun-hat) is behind them, trying to figure out where I am so he can look toward the camera (he's legally blind), and my brother, Bill, in the ball-cap beside him is looking at the symphony program. Lucy is in the tent with the orchestra.

It was also stressful and hectic. Dad's health is failing, and he wanted me to take over managing his finances (Lucy handles his day-to-day care). So I did paperwork, made calls, and filled out forms (online when I could to save paper and energy). By the time I set out for the long drive home on Monday, I was tired. Still, I resisted the temptation to rush. 

I headed north to Bellingham to visit my youngest niece, Alice, and her boyfriend Dan and their two dogs, Riley and Jaxon. Red and I took the back route on two-lane roads instead of the congested I-5 corridor through Seattle, which yielded a lovely drive up Hood Canal, and gave Red her first ferry ride between Port Townsend and Coupeville on Whidbey Island. 

Our ferry making the crossing.

The next morning, I headed east, taking the winding and two-lane North Cascades Highway and then following Highway 2 across eastern Washington instead of the faster interstate route (I-5 to I-90 east). The alternate route took only an hour longer (9 hours instead of 8) and saved me half a tank of gas. Plus I got to admire mountain wildflowers in the North Cascades. 

Western red columbine, valerian, senecio, and other wildflowers crowd an avalanche chute in the North Cascades. 

I still made it to Missoula in time to take a long walk and stretch out the road-kinks before retiring to Red's topper for the night. 

Back at home, I worked on another part of my personal response to global climate change: Readying my restored mid-Century Modern house and yard to sell. I'm downsizing and thus shrinking my use of Earth's non-sustainable resources.

In renovating what was a very dilapidated house, my contractor, Jeff Durham, and I have saved everything we could, re-homed what we couldn't, and used new materials as efficiently as possible. The house is now much more energy-efficient than it was when we started, and the yard, my personal project, needs less water and almost no pesticides (I've used careful spot applications of herbicide to kill some persistent invasive weeds). 

While Jeff worked on renovating the final bathroom, I hauled and spread 80 wheelbarrow-loads of pit-run, local gravel to finish the paths and sitting areas in the back and side yards. This "hardscape" reduces the lawn area, reducing the resource use, and also makes the yard an inviting place to stroll and sit. Eighty wheelbarrow-loads is enough gravel to fill Jeff's dump trailer one and a half times, or about 5,600 pounds of gravel--close to three tons.

Filling the first wheelbarrow load. Seventy-nine more to go.... 

I worked from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, with a break on Saturday to meet a writing deadline. (Once I get going on a yard project, I have a hard time stopping. And Jeff needed the trailer back by Monday.) I was partway through when my friend Kate and her two small daughters stopped by for a visit.

The side path connecting front yard to back yard.

As the girls foot-propelled their Stryder bikes around by the east-side path, I heard Iris, all of four years old, say, "Let's follow the fairy path!" And then when she came around the corner into the backyard, she gasped: "Mama, Susan made us a fairyland!" 

The backyard fairyland, complete with bridge for bikes large and small... 

That may be the best yard-design compliment I've ever gotten.

Now the backyard is complete but for a bit of rock-work on the dry stream-bed, that final bathroom is light and bright and beautiful, and I'm contemplating what belongings I really need to keep and what I can give away and sell as I trade this wonderfully restored house and yard for something much smaller.

Glass blocks now break up the shower wall, adding natural light. A glass vessel sink on a simple steel counter brings the colors of the outdoors into everyday life. 

My resolve is to continue to learn how to live more lightly on this Earth, and free my time to write and weed, speaking up for the planet and the species we share it with--working to restore beauty and health for us all. Being the change I'd like to see...

The front yard, complete with climate-friendly and colorful pollinator garden replacing part of the resource-intensive lawn.

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Renovation Reckoning: Before and After

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I was planting native perennial flowers from a local nursery's July sale this afternoon; the sun was hot, and I was sweaty and tired. "Why am I working so hard? Is it worth it?" Rescuing this dilapidated house and yard felt overwhelming and never-ending. 

So when I came inside to clean up and cool off, I took a moment for a project-reckoning and scrolled through the hundreds of photos on my computer documenting the work. Looking at before and after shots, I immediately felt better. Here's a quick tour photos, so you can see the transformation too. 

The photo above is the house when I first saw it in October, 2016; the photo at the top of the post is the front view now. Among the changes: a new roof replacing the crumbling old one, new gutters and eaves, ugly and leaking carport removed, new windows (including in the garage door), trees removed, trimmed, and relocated; gravel paths and sitting patio added, along with pollinator plantings, including a native-plant rock garden. 

Here's the back view as I first saw the house and yard through a screen of sickly Rocky Mountain juniper trees planted too close together and never thinned. Not so appealing, is it?

 

And the backyard now, after much tree-thinning and trimming, plus new windows, roof, gutters, and that fabulous new deck. Oh, and paths and sitting patios in progress (I need a load of gravel to finish that project). 

Oh, yeah, much better!

Let's go inside. I fell in love with the house for its classic mid-Century Modern details, including the big windows sited at the corners of the rooms, letting in lots of light and bringing the outdoors inside; the wood floors; and the fabulous original and very retro kitchen. All of which were in very bad shape then. I can admit now that the house was "scary," in the words of my friend Connie, who toured it with me when I first saw it. (But I knew I could rescue the place.) 

Below is a photo of the living/dining room, which in real estate parlance "had potential." (Meaning it needed a lot of work: the windows leaked and were fogged with age, the floors were scarred and filthy, the chimney lining cracked, the paint and light fixtures cheap and ugly, and so on.) 

Today, the room shines, with the floors refinished, new windows gleaming, energy-efficient light fixtures that pay homage to the 50s, and paint in mid-Century Modern hues. The original fireplace with its massive horizontal brick surround and mahogany mantel works again, with a new gas fireplace insert.

 

I love this room!

Through the doorway is the retro kitchen (photo below) that totally charmed me when I first saw the house, despite cheesy appliances and light fixtures, dirt, and a terrible paint and tile job. 

Who could resist the sunshine yellow color of those metal cabinets (top of the line in 1956, when the house was built), and the original beach blue stove? Not me.

After some hard work, a little creative vision, and a chunk of money for new windows, light fixtures, paint, floor coverings, and appliances, that kitchen gleams again. (By the way, it's bigger than it looks: I've had a dozen people in there hanging out with me while I was cooking dinner.) 

Turn around (photo above), and you see the kitchen even has its own breakfast nook, with attached powder room. Very '50s! It too, has come a long way since I moved in, when it was so NOT charming. 

At the other end of the house in the bedroom wing, what is now the master suite was a sad and cold place when I arrived the winter before last.

I lay in my sleeping bag on my camping mattress one evening before my furniture arrived and contemplated what to do with a floor that was so scarred it couldn't be saved, and a room where one end was basically a storage area-cum-hallway leading to the attached office. (photo below)

The other half of my bedroom, with the steps down to the office on the right-hand side of the photo.

Gradually I saw the possibilities: an en-suite bathroom in one corner, a laundry center and linen shelves in the other. So it became, with some seriously creative design and a lot of Jeff's skilled and meticulous work. (The linen shelves and stacked washer-dryer live behind the screen.)

The rest of the bedroom looks pretty great now too, as you can see below. (For before and after photos of my office, part of that master suite, click here, and scroll down.)

Sleeping here is a pleasure now... 

There's more. The downstairs, which was not only dark and dingy when I first saw it, but had this weird smell (Connie refused to even go down the stairs!), is now a light and bright family suite, with its own bathroom that has a cool sliding barn door with a full-light clouded pane. (photo below)

There's a laundry room down there too with an water-efficient front-loading washer and efficient dryer, plus Pancho and Lefty, the brand-new gas boiler powering the baseboard hot-water heat and inline water heater. And a new master electric panel replacing the two dodgy old ones. Overhead the attic is now insulated so the house stays warm in the winter and cool in the summers. 

It's been a big project, and an intense one. But I've been fortunate to have a great contractor to work with--we enjoy collaborating--and other skilled and talented tradespeople who have come to respect my vision (even if they did think I was crazy at first!).  

Looking at these photos, I'm proud of what we've accomplished in the past twenty months. Finishing doesn't seem so daunting now that I see how far we've come. (There's one more bathroom to renovate, the yard to finish, and I've got a punch-list of smaller details in the house.) But we're getting close. And Oh! does this place shine now...

The only thing I regret is that Richard, the love of my life, designer and builder and sculptor extraordinaire, isn't alive to see it. He would be proud of me for discovering my inner Tool Girl.

Tomorrow is his 68th birthday. I think I'll sit on the back deck after work, and raise a glass to celebrate his life and spirit. He'd like that. 

Richard Cabe (1950-2011), always beloved...

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Tool Girl Again: Why Rescue Houses?

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I was trying to explain to a friend why I would spend a year and a half plus a tidy chunk of money renovating my wonderful but very, very neglected mid-century modern house, and then decide to sell it when I finish. 

"It's the project," I said. "I can't resist a good renovation project."

That was a weak answer, and my friend knew it. She gave me one of those you-are-crazy-but-I'm-fond-of-you-anyway looks, and changed the subject. 

So what is it about building/renovation projects that has me hooked? As I've written recently, I've clearly got a "Jones" for this work: I've finished, built, or renovated three houses in the past six years. That despite basically never picking up a tool more complicated than a screwdriver or a spade until I was in my late 50s. And only then because the guy who could design and build anything died of brain cancer before he finished our house. 

That man, the one I loved with my whole heart, my late husband, Richard Cabe, was the quintessential tool guy. He owned hundreds of them, both power and hand. He could (and did) sculpt a firepit out of a one-ton granite boulder, design and build his own hand-operated crane, hoist the roof beam of our house using just ropes and pulleys, build anything with his own hands, and also out-fox an opposing lawyer as an economic expert witness. He was just that brilliant.

A boy and his tools: Richard adjusting the load-carrying beam on his gantry--hand-powered crane--after he set in place the 450-pound sandstone block that became the sculptural base for our mailbox. He had just had one brain surgery then, and would have another set of brain tumors removed in a few weeks. None of which deterred him from sculpting--or climbing ladders. 

I used to say Richard could design his way out of a paper bag--only he would build a better bag first. 

While he was alive, I never considered myself capable of conceiving, repairing, or restoring structures. I could design a landscape or restore a stream, yes. But build? No. Then Richard died, and out of sheer financial necessity, I had to finish both our house and his hundred-year-old studio building. Soon. Or lose them both in the morass of post-cancer bills. 

Thanks to patient friends (that's you, especially, Maggie and Tony Niemann!) and knowledgeable trades-folk, I learned to use tools, to hang doors and trim windows, to frame doorways and build counters, and to envision the way buildings work (or don't). In the doing, I learned that while I'm not a great carpenter like Richard was, much less a sculptor, I do enjoy and find satisfaction in the process of solving design challenges of light and space and color and form, of materials and tolerances, of construction and restoration.

What precisely do I love about that process? Something deeper than only design: "Here is this neglected space with badly-designed, old windows that leak. What can I do with it?" It's more the challenge of learning the place well enough to hear its voice, to ask, "What do you have to offer? How can I facilitate that?"

As with my office in the photos below. I saw the paint colors right away; adding bookshelves to the walls, and insulation to the attic were also a no-brainers. But it took me over a year to hear that what that window-bay needed was not just new windows, but windows in proportion to the ones in the rest of the house, with a built-in seat below.  

The north-facing "sunroom" opening off my bedroom-to-be as I first saw it. Yes, the floor was that filthy, and yes, the windows were so scarred it was like looking through fog.

Now that room just sings. It could be so many things for different people: an office, sure, but also a playroom, a craft room, an artist's studio, a kid's bedroom, a reading and movie room... Restoring it returned its beauty and its utility in the original sense, its ability to be a useful and comfortable space.

That same room almost two years later, brand-new window-seat, new windows, paint, insulation,and all. It's happy and inviting now. 

That I have sweat and skin in the game (not to mention money) just makes the work all the more satisfying, all the more meaningful. My body remembers. Restoring the house becomes part of my felt experience.

Friday I spent four hours scraping and painting the west-side house eaves to stay ahead of the guys putting up my new gutters. When I finished, I was both exhausted and exhilarated.

"Yes!" I said to myself. "I did that!" I'm not as good a painter as Shantel Durham, my contractor's daughter, is. But I can do some of the work, and get some of the satisfaction of a job done, and done well. That feels very good. 

Are those good-looking eaves and gutters, or what? The eaves on this side of the house were shabby and partly rotted when I first saw them. Now they shine. (Those are heritage tomato plants in the stock-tank planters, grown with seeds from Renee's Garden.)

As does relaxing on my deck as hot afternoon eases into cool evening. As robins chuckle and wrens fuss, a bright yellow tiger swallowtail flutters through the yard, and the twin fawns of the mama mule deer who haunts our block pick their way carefully, small hooves clicking, down the alley.

As this sixty-two-year-old, beautiful but long-neglected house settles in, ready to shelter, nurture, and inspire for another six decades--and beyond. 

What I love about this process of seeing buildings anew, is that "re-storing." Or as my friend, writer and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan puts it, "re-storying." In listening and tending to these places, I am giving them back their voices, their stories, the gifts they have to give us. 

That makes my heart sing.

New office windows (yes, those shingles need their color-coat of paint), new deck, which still needs steps, and new paths beginning to take shape. Old house and yard, new life. 

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